NAUGATUCK — Robert Burns was a young sailor dodging German submarines on his way to France after he graduated from Naugatuck High School in 1944.
In August, while those back at home were thinking about their first jobs, the 18-year-old Burns was aboard a landing craft during the initial invasion of southern France.
“We went from boyhood to manhood very quickly,” Burns said during a Memorial Day observance on the Green Monday. “Many of my classmates did not return.”
Burns continued, “I am very proud to have had the opportunity to defend my country. For all its trials and tribulations, it is still the greatest country in the world.”
This veteran of World War II and Korea and longtime burgess was grand marshal of the borough’s Memorial Day parade, which locals say is the biggest in New England.
Burns and his wife, Phyllis, led the hour-long procession. They were trailed by a parade of uniformed veterans, marching bands, waving politicians, and a host of community groups.
Helen Anderson used to come to the parade as a girl, but had not attended since she and her husband retired to Florida in 2001. Anderson timed her visit to Connecticut to fall on parade day.
“I’ve always had fond memories of this parade,” she said. “It is just the right mix of small town Americana, patriotism, and service. It’s even better than I remembered it.”
James Gagnon, a three-tour Marine Corps veteran and a past commander of the local American Legion, said he participates as a reminder to the younger generation.
“Seeing that people are still interested in the work we’ve done for our country, it makes me feel good, but it also tells the younger generation that we need them to serve, too,” Gagnon said.
Parade organizers have worked hard to keep events focused on those who died in military service to their nation. Each year the names of the borough’s war dead are read aloud.
“Our parade is beautiful, everybody has a great time, but what this event is purposely about is those who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Mayor Robert Mezzo said. “We can’t forget.”
During his speech on the Green, Mezzo urged the audience to honor those killed in service to the nation by respecting those who have served or are still serving in the armed forces.
The next generation of veterans is returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, he said, looking to reconnect with family, find a job and cope with their war experience.
“Our new veterans need our support,” Mezzo said. “For all they have sacrificed, for all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice while asking nothing in return, it’s the very least we can do.”